Fueling options for the gluten free endurance athlete
As many of you know, I’ve gone back to my endurance athlete ways.
I played around with being a figure athlete for a while, when I wasn’t “allowed” to ride due to the complexity and fragility of the surgical repairs to my knees, but when I was cleared by my orthopedist to return to road cycling last fall, I jumped back in.
Since then, I’ve progressed significantly and am learning to get my head and preconceived notions out of the way of what my body is capable of.
Training for endurance athletics versus training for aesthetics and strength require very different types of fueling, specifically during exercise. I definitely run well on carbohydrate (yes, I know it’s not “necessary” to life, and some people do fine on low carb diets, even endurance athletes, but I am not one of them. Trial and error and experience have taught me that I do just fine with carbs.) In general, when training for strength and aesthetics, your actual exercise time is not very long, usually less than an hour. There’s no real need for “during exercise” fueling. On the other hand, I can easily be out for 2-4 hours training on the bike, on a generally 5 day per week basis. That requires some fuel.
As an endurance athlete with celiac disease, I have to be very aware and careful with what fuel I choose. I always carry enough food to sustain me, as I do not like to be dependent upon finding appropriate food while at a ride or race. (The only exception is a banana-I feel very safe peeling one of those myself and eating it, and pretty much every convenience store/gas station has bananas these days.)
As always when it comes to specific brands and foods, if it is a packaged/labeled/manufactured item, always check labels and double check with the companies if you are not sure. Although these items were safe and gluten free at the time this was written, formulations and ingredients change and it is always better to be careful.
There are quite a few options out there, so I’m just going to focus on the ones I’ve personally tried. Let’s split it up into fluids, gels, and real food (aka food that requires chewing.) Just for grins. Let’s remember that sugars are OK when you’re exercising for a long period of time, and for the sake of this discussion that means > 90 minutes of a moderate intensity.
- Good old water. If your training session is 90 minutes or less of moderate or easy intensity, you’re good with just water or perhaps a low calorie electrolyte providing beverage, such as…
- ZYM. I like ZYM Catapult because it has a little caffeine (a performance enhancer) but not too much, and I like the Berry flavor. It has a little fizz to it but it goes away quickly. I’ve also tried the lemon lime flavor which was quite good as well. The flavoring is subtle. These are handy because you can toss the tube into your pocket and take it with you, which saves me having to use Gatorade on the road to refill out of desperation. (The osmolality in Gatorade is not my friend, tummy discomfort galore.) I’ve heard Nuun tabs are similar, but I’ve not tried those.
- Generation UCAN. This is technically a pre-training drink, but it is a fluid, so here you go. I did extensive testing and reviews of Gen UCAN, and still use it. I alternate UCAN with a mixture of honey and coconut oil as my pre-ride fuel. (I ride very early in the morning.) UCAN is a carbohydrate and electrolyte drink, designed for use pre-workout. Read my reviews here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
- First Endurance Electrolyte Fuel System Drink Mix. This is my drink of choice for providing carbohydrate and electrolytes in fluid form while training. I’ve tried another brand (Hammer’s HEED) which I did not like the taste of and did not have as good of an electrolyte profile as the EFS does. I like the Fruit Punch flavor.
Gels (’cause when I’m riding hard, ain’t no way I’m chewing.)
- Honey Stinger Energy Gel. This is my current favorite. The packets are easy to open, and the consistency of the honey is slightly watered down so it is easy to swallow. I like the chocolate and Ginsting (which is a regular honey flavor with a little caffeine) flavors. I especially appreciate the limited ingredient list. Honey is a really good carbohydrate source for athletes, by the way. Check it out. The research was funded by the Honey Board, but still. It’s also good for lots of other stuff. (As an aside, that is why on the days I do not use Gen UCAN as my pre training drink, I use a mix of coconut oil or coconut butter and honey. The medium chain triglycerides in the coconut oil get used for fuel, and the honey is a great carb source. I started using this on the suggestion of Kelli Jennings at Apex Nutrition. As Kelli says “These are fast-acting, quick-metabolizing energy foods. The honey provides moderately fast carbs that act similarly to maltodextrin (moderately fast and longer lasting than glucose), natural enzymes to improve digestion, and antioxidants. The organic coconut oil provides fast-acting medium chain triglycerides which are used directly by the mitochondria of cells (energy producers) without the need for bile or slow digestion.” I am working on a DIY energy gel using these and salt, but haven’t got it yet.) The packaging for these gels is easy to open, yet is sturdy enough for a full packet to make it through the washing machine without breaking open. I speak with first hand knowledge. Got to check those jersey pockets.
- Chocolate #9. Like Honey Stinger Gels, these have a lovely ingredient list. These were VERY chocolatey, and had a considerably thicker texture than the Honey Stinger. They were like brownie batter, which would be lovely under different circumstances, but trying to swallow it as quickly as possible lessened my enjoyment. Plus, it made it harder to get out of the package with your teeth. (Keep in mind, this is while I’m riding, so teeth and one hand.) These have less carbohydrate than the Honey Stingers as well. These were good, but for my purposes and taste I prefer the Honey Stinger gels.
Real Food aka you have to chew it.
(For me, these are used for a ride > 2.5 hours.)
- Bananas. Self explanatory. Really, any fruit, but none have the comic potential that bananas do. Cyclists are a funny group. Bananas are one of the few chew-requiring foods that I can eat on the bike.
- Jovial Fig Fruit Filled Gluten Free Organic Cookies . Fig Newtons are kind of a staple in the endurance world. I was feeling nostalgic, so went looking for a gluten free alternative and came across these. They are handily packaged in 2’s, which is perfect for tossing in a jersey pocket. Tasty, too.
- Raisins or any dried fruit.
- LÄRABAR . I like the Cherry Pie, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, and Carrot Cake flavors. You may be different. A friend of mine bought the Peanut Butter Cookie and hated it, while I like it. The combo of nuts and dried fruit gives a little bit of faster carb and the longer lasting fat fuel.
- Coconutz Fuel Energy Balls. Check out my review of the awesome balls here.
- Honey Stinger Organic Energy Chews. These are nice because they don’t require too much chewing, in a pinch you can even just swallow them. My only gripe is that they leave your fingers sticky, so try to shoot them into your mouth from the package.
- Sweet potatoes. Kelli Jennings of Apex Nutrition gives some awesome recipes here. I’ve not tried these yet but they sound great, although potentially messy.
- Potato wedges with sea salt
- Fig and Honey Rice Cakes from The Feed Zone Cookbook (great book, very gluten free friendly.)
My friends Kim at Gluten Free is Life and Pete at No Gluten, No Problem are endurance runners. Check out their blogs for some more ideas. Also, Pete was co-author with my sister from another mother Melissa, the genius behind Gluten Free for Good of the eagerly anticipated book, The Gluten-Free Edge: A Nutrition and Training Guide for Peak Athletic Performance and an Active Gluten-Free Life. It will be released on July 3rd, so go pre-order it. It’s going to be awesome. And that’s not even because I was one of the gluten free athletes interviewed for the book, I promise.
Hopefully this gives all you endurance athletes some ideas! Like I said, this is by no means an all inclusive list, these are just the items I’ve tried and used. Please leave a comment if there is something else you use and like!